All Commentary
Thursday, March 1, 1990

Saying No to Federal Disaster Relief

Professor Irvine teaches philosophy at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.

Hurricane Hugo and the earthquake in northern California have raised an old, but easily ignored question in political theory: What role, if any, should the federal government play in disaster relief? The current consensus seems to be not just that there is a role for the government to play, but that it is the government% duty, among other things, to help people rebuild homes and to help businessmen recover lost income.

Indeed, politicians have been falling all over themselves in trying to show how willing they are to spend government funds (i.e., taxpayers’ dollars) on disaster relief. In the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake, the federal government allocated $3 billion for disaster relief, even though doing so made a shambles of the Federal budget. More such relief efforts are probably on the way.

I readily admit that the federal government has some role to play in disaster relief. It has, for example, a role in helping maintain order if local and state governments are unable to do so. It might also have a role in helping restore the infrastructure-again, if local and state governments are unable to do so. And of course if the federal government can take steps to save the lives of disaster victims, it should do so.

Where I would draw the line in Federal disaster relief is when it comes to compensating individuals and businesses for property and income lost in a disaster, either with grants or low-interest loans. I would like to argue that the government should in almost all instances refuse to make such compensation. In such cases, I think the government’s duty is to stand back and rely on private relief efforts.

In defending this position, I would first like to challenge the common notion that a disaster victim is somehow entitled to Federal funds, that his status as a victim gives him a moral claim to the wealth of others. It is entirely appropriate for this person to ask for our sympathy or even to ask for contributions from us, but he is mistaken if he thinks that because he has been victimized, we owe him a new house, or lost wages, or anything else. Stated bluntly, the fact that nature has victimized someone by depriving him of his property does not entitle this person to victimize the rest of us by depriving us of our property, either indirectly through taxation or in some more direct fashion.

Private relief efforts have one major advantage over Federal relief efforts: They rely on voluntary contributions, rather than on coerced tax payments. To the extent that someone abhors coercion on the part of government, he should disapprove of Federal disaster relief; and if this person thinks that the victims of disasters should be helped, let him make a Charitable (and entirely voluntary) contribution to the disaster-relief organization of his choice.

In discussing the disasters in South Carolina and San Francisco, it is important for us to keep in mind that they were foreseeable: South Carolina has been the target of many hurricanes, and San Francisco is perched atop the San Andreas fault. Notice, also, that the residents of both places could have taken steps to minimize the harm they might experience when these foreseeable disasters took place. A case can therefore be made that many of the victims of Hugo and the San Francisco earthquake knowingly took chances. What else can you say about someone in South Carolina who built his home on the beach or about someone in San Francisco who passed up earthquake insurance (as did four in five Californians)?

I have no objection against people taking chances; I object only when they expect me and my fellow taxpayers to bail them out when they lose their bets. And this is what many of those in South Carolina and San Francisco are doing when they petition for Federal disaster relief.

Americans are remarkably inconsistent in their views on whether a person should be compensated after experiencing a disaster. Suppose, for example, that someone in Kansas prefers to spend his money on a VCR rather than on homeowners insurance. Suppose that his house subsequently bums down, (It gets struck, let us assume, by lightning.) Who would argue, in such a case, that government funds should be spent to buy him a new house?

Extending this analogy, we might understand if this Kansan were to appeal to his neighbors for help in rebuilding. Suppose, however, that instead of appealing to his neighbors, he informs them that they owe him a new house. We might admire his boldness, but we would be foolish indeed if we thought that his failure to buy insurance gave him some moral claim to our wealth.

This Kansan’s behavior would be particularly audacious if he happened to be wealthier than his neighbors. (San Francisco, of course, is one of the most affluent regions in America; and anyone who can afford to own a home in San Francisco probably isn’t in need of a Federal bailout.)

For another example of how inconsistent Americans are on the issue of when disaster victims should be compensated, consider America’s investors, who recently experienced a major disaster, the stock market crash of 1987. It is true that this disaster was economic rather than natural, but in terms of money lost, it was a disaster that put Hurricane Hugo and the San Francisco earthquake to shame. (The Crash cost investors $1 trillion; Hugo and the San Francisco earthquake did under $20 billion in damage.)

America’s response to the Crash was most instructive. Many Americans laughed at the plight of investors and said that they “had it coming.” Others had a less vindictive attitude and said that America’s shareholders knowingly took chances and lost—too bad. It is my contention that this second attitude is entirely appropriate; my question is why we do not hold a similar attitude toward those who suffered property or income losses in California and South Carolina. (Perhaps our difference in attitude stems from the fact that a shareholder clutching a worthless stock certificate isn’t nearly as photogenic as a hurricane victim standing in front of his smashed seaside home.)

At this point, some might argue that Federal funds are essential to the relief efforts in South Carolina and California—that the only way these states will be able to recover is if the federal government assists them. Those taking this line might argue that private relief efforts, while desirable from a theoretical point of view, would not be sufficient to deal with major disasters like those experienced by South Carolina and California.

In reply to this argument, I can only point out that in 1906 San Francisco suffered from an earthquake far more devastating than the recent one, but recovered quickly even though Federal assistance was minimal. Despite what many politicians would have us believe, people can help themselves; and when people can help themselves, there is every reason for allowing them to do so.

Let me offer one last reason why the government shouldn’t compensate disaster victims for their losses. Notice that when the government adopts (either explicitly or implicitly) a policy of making such compensation, it inadvertently sets the stage for even greater disasters in the future, disasters that may extract a terrible toll not just in lost property, but in lost lives.

If, after all, the government adopts a policy of bailing out those who lose the bet they place when they pass up earthquake insurance or build their home on a beach, the government unintentionally encourages people to engage in this sort of behavior. (“Why pay for disaster insurance when you can get it ‘for free’ from the government?”) More generally, the government encourages people not to worry about tomorrow’s foreseeable disasters. (“Why worry? The government will take care of us.”) And by encouraging this carefree attitude, the government increases the chance that future earthquakes and hurricanes will do even more harm than they now do.

In other, words, disaster relief today can result in additional disasters tomorrow; and those who genuinely care about the well-being of their fellow citizens should be willing to allow some suffering today to prevent a far greater amount of suffering tomorrow.

  • Professor Irvine teaches philosophy at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.